✻ ✻ ✻
Elena walked blindly to cool her cheeks until she heard Damon’s voice behind her. “You’re getting too close to them. There are a few tumbleweeds on this part of road, too, you know.”
Elena turned around and said, with a need to reestablish control, “I’ll come back if you’ll call the Highway Patrol and tell them that there’s something big—maybe a trapped car—under a bunch of tumbleweeds on Crantz Highway—about three or four miles west of Silverado.”
To his credit, Damon didn’t play around. He immediately said “All right,” and pulled out his mobile.
At the same moment a car going probably the same speed Damon had been doing on Crantz flew by them on Silverado—too fast to avoid the medium- large tumbleweed that was directly in its path.
The tumbleweed must have been related to the Old Witch Grass variety Elena had heard about. Because it went BANG when the car hit it—leaping up in fire and smoke, and then . . . it rained down thousands of tiny malach on Damon and Elena.
These malach weren’t like the huge one that had attacked Matt and furrowed his arm with its sharp teeth. These were tiny, like miniature leeches, each with a mosquito-like proboscis that felt like a tiny steel drill. They made no sound except a soft pattering, like rain, as they showered all around Elena. But an instant after the tumbleweed exploded, Elena felt the first little sting on her neck. And then another sting and another—and suddenly the pain was everywhere. The jabbing of a hundred needles at once.
She had her eyes and her mouth tightly shut and her hands pressed over her face, but this meant she couldn’t run. She couldn’t even cry out at the pain.
“Elena! Over this way!”
Elena took a few steps and stumbled, almost falling. She could still feel new stings all over her body. The malach were small enough to hang suspended in the air, or blow with the slightest breeze. Elena’s mind was going through options wildly, so fast that she felt numbed and bewildered.
“Elena! Follow my voice! Get to the car!”
Elena took a few more stumbling steps, and then stopped. She didn’t want to run into another tumbleweed and set it off, and she didn’t dare take her hands down or open her eyes. A malach in an open eye . . . she shuddered.
But even standing perfectly still, she felt new stings by the dozen. Obviously, she needed to get to the car. But by what path?
Suddenly she jumped as she felt a hand touch her shoulder. Then she realized it was Damon. He’d come for her, despite having to walk through a cloud of malach the whole way, and with him he’d brought protection, the protection of Power. It was opened out over them like an umbrella, keeping most of the stingers off—not all, but most.
“This way,” he said, and added briefly, “It’s probably better not to open your eyes yet.”
No kidding, Elena thought, and she was grateful for his assistance as he guided her back to the car, circling tumbleweeds which were no longer stationary, according to Damon, but were rolling toward them, trying to cut them off from the car.
When they reached the vehicle, Elena realized that they’d left the front doors open. Malach had fallen inside, but fortunately not too many—the angle was wrong when that other car had hit the tumbleweed that had exploded.
Elena got in the car, clenching her teeth against the pain of the hundreds of pricks as her body made contact with the fabric of the seats. She couldn’t bear to put a seatbelt on.
Damon drove slowly on Silverado.
“Where are you going? We need to get these malach out of us, fast!” “I know. I’m looking for a turnoff, a trail into woodlands or something where we can have privacy,” Damon said.
“There is no way I’m going into a woodland of any kind, for any reason! Don’t you get it? It’s Shinichi and Misao—and they’re kitsune! They can use any kind of plant to do anything they want—”
“So what’s your idea?” Damon interrupted. “To just keep going until we find a motel, and check in as a couple of porcupines?”
“No, but there are farmhouses around here—”
“And if we ask someone to help us they may already be possessed! This is a hell of a big trap; it required a lot of planning. Would Shinichi have left the people out of his calculations?”
“I wasn’t planning on asking anyone! I was planning on finding a barn.” “A barn?” Damon sounded bewildered.
“Or any kind of outbuilding. These are small, small farms, with hardly any people on them. At this time of day, when the cows are out grazing, there’s nobody in the barns. I know: I have two great-aunts who live on a farm. Look, there’s a driveway. Turn in there.”
Damon seemed about to object, but he followed her directions.
“Now go over there, and back here’s a barn. I’ll bet you anything it’s empty.”
They spilled out of the car; Elena grabbing her duffel bag and ran into the barn.
“I’ll bet you anything that if this place isn’t empty, I can kill them before they can catch us.” Damon was swinging his head around, turning toward every corner, as if he could see through farm machinery or the hayloft above.
“Don’t kill humans!” Elena was almost insane with the prickling and itching all over her body, but she had to make this clear. “Influence them, knock them out if you can’t—but please don’t kill them.”
“Why? You don’t know anybody here, do you? What’s it to you?”
“Damon, it’s a lot to me!” Elena had been frantically dumping out her duffel bag, trying to find a bathing suit she had thrown in at the last minute while packing. She found it—a black bikini. She felt dimly pleased by her foresight in packing it. “Now please, let me go up the ladder to the hayloft and I’ll tell you when it’s okay.”
“When what’s okay?”
“When it’s okay to come up!”
Damon just stared at her and Elena knew what he was thinking. Only a week ago, she had had no compunctions about standing entirely naked in front of him, and he had been the one trying to get her clothed. Only a week ago, he had massaged her body piece by piece, one arm out of a sheet at a time, until she had become boneless under his fingers, had surrendered all voluntary motion, and—
“I—I’ve changed,” she shouted to him as she kicked off her shoes and began the slow and painful trip up the ladder. “I understand the modesty taboo now, and—well, things have changed.” Please let him understand that, Elena added silently.
Damon had changed, too, Elena thought angrily. Although he had worked with her when it meant their joint survival, and had even protected her,
he’d made it clear that he felt nothing kindly or special toward her afterwards. He’d jerked away from her touch.
I’m not innocent and oblivious anymore, Elena thought. Which, I suppose, means I was totally clueless when I was with him back then. Elena felt a pang, not of anger, but of sorrow at having lost that innocence. She had enjoyed it, however much other people wanted to wake her up. And right now—well, she didn’t know what she was going to do if Damon didn’t want to touch her. How would she ever get all these malach off? She’d be possessed . . .
And she was starting to get delirious, she realized. It must be the malachs’ poison affecting her already.
As Elena frantically stripped and put on the bathing suit, she did her best not to look at her body, but of course she couldn’t help but see it. Hundreds of jellylike little sacs hung from her; and the tiny drills on the ends of the sacs were steadily drawing the jelly blobs closer to her 6body. The pain was bad enough, but the itching was absolutely maddening. She knew that if she scratched, she would only tear away the soft jelly part and leave the drill winding its way into her skin, but it was agony to keep from scratching.
Just as Elena began to call, she sensed something from below her. A sort of . . . disturbance. It registered in Elena’s mind as an explosion, and, disregarding the pain, she dropped to her hands and knees.
“Damon?” Elena tried to whisper, while sending the message in a telepathic shout. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he said in normal conversational tones, if a bit tersely.
“I felt something—”
“It’s not enemies. You felt me using Power. Are you ready yet or not?” Elena opened her mouth to ask more questions, then decided not to.
Apparently he was going to help her. “I’m ready.”
She heard Damon’s swift, stealthy tread on the ladder. A moment later he appeared among the bundles of hay. Elena stared. He was dressed just as before, from black jeans to black bomber jacket, in defiance of the summer heat. But although Elena knew she’d seen malach that had pierced those jeans, they were gone now.
“How did you get them off so fast?”
“I told you. With Power,” he said impatiently. “I burned them all off. You sensed it yourself.”
And he must have done. Elena didn’t know what she had expected. For Damon to have come up covered in parasites, the way she was? Looking at him now, immaculate and annoyed, it was impossible to imagine.
For the first time in her life, Elena Gilbert felt ashamed of her body.
My God, I must look hideous, she thought wretchedly. Even she couldn’t bear to look at herself. And she couldn’t look at Damon’s expression, either.
She’d begun to shake with the pain and itching, though, and she couldn’t help but say, “Can you do the same thing to me?”
Damon laughed shortly. “Yes, if you don’t mind having your skin microwaved.” She looked up, knowing there were tears in her eyes and he said in a slightly different tone, “Let’s just say that vampire skin can take it, but you’d end up like a sun-dried mummy.”
“Then what am I supposed to do? How do I make them come out?”
Damon looked her over and for a moment Elena would swear that shock and dismay flashed across his face before he swept them away into expressionless stillness. “We have to unscrew the little devils,” he said, gesturing for her to come closer. “Turn them in the opposite direction they’re going in, like unwinding a screw.”
“How am I supposed to see that?” Elena’s temper, always combustible, was on the verge of explosion. If he was trying to make fun of her at this point—
“Just let me see, will you?”
The dim barn was no place to see anything, as far as Elena was concerned. But Damon took hold of one of her arms and began to scrutinize it. Then, carefully, pulling the skin around it taut with the fingers of one hand, he reached for a malach with the other hand and removed one of the tiny spines with a deft spin of thumb and forefinger.
“Did that hurt?” he asked.
“Oh . . . just a little. But it’s fine, it’s a good hurt—if you know what I mean. Is it really out?”
“Yes, but I’ll have to destroy them as we remove them or they’ll try to wriggle back up to us. They’re heat seekers.” Again Damon stretched the skin of Elena’s forearm, deftly spun a shaft and pulled it out. This time there was a brief flash of fire between his fingers as he finished, a puff of black smoke and the malach was gone, leaving an acrid smell. “That one found heat,” he said, with his most deadly smile.
Elena tried to hold herself still. She felt as if she and Damon had been having an argument that was not quite concluded. But her back was itching in a way that threatened to drive her insane and her pride was rapidly eroding.
“What’s wrong? Did I hurt you too much?”
“No,” Elena said. “But . . . oh, Damon, my back is killing me! I don’t know how they got in—”
“Straight through the material of that flimsy top of yours. They can squeeze themselves unbelievably thin.”
“—it’s just that I itch like—” Talking about it made it unbearable. She reached around to scratch at one shoulder.
“Don’t do that!” Damon snapped immediately. “I can’t help it!”
“Don’t say that!”
“It’s my body!”
“Do you want to be possessed?” “At this point, I don’t care!” Damon stared at her for a long moment. Elena knew he was thinking of all the things he could say to that, but he controlled himself and said nothing. For her sake, she thought suddenly, in wonder.
Briefly and expressionlessly he said, “All right, lie down on your stomach.”
When Elena obeyed she felt Damon start slightly. She couldn’t help saying, “Oh, God, they’re all over my back, aren’t they?”
No answer. But then Damon began working on her very rapidly, scarcely seeming to unscrew the malach so much as to pluck them out. Elena could tell he was working as quickly as he could. It hurt more, but—like scratching an itch—the pain, in some strange way, felt good.
It was like being de-ticked, Elena decided. First was the nearly unbearable itching and swelling and pain that went with having just one of these horrible things burrowing into you. Then there was the slight relief of having the skin around it stretched, and then the quick hot flare of pain as Damon grasped it and flicked it out, and finally the relief of having the steel splinter gone and warm blood flowing instead, cleansing the wound, easing the swelling.
“Will they leave scars?” she asked, feeling helpless and useless.
“I wonder whether any got into that car that ran over the tumbleweed?” “Who cares?” Each brusque answer pushed Elena closer to tears. Finally, she stopped talking completely. She had no idea why he was helping her if, as she had guessed, he was tired of her and the problems she seemed to bring along with her as a human. She shut her eyes and let him do what he could to keep her from becoming a pawn of Shinichi.